Academic journal article American Studies International

The More Things Change: Paradigm Shifts in Asian American Studies

Academic journal article American Studies International

The More Things Change: Paradigm Shifts in Asian American Studies

Article excerpt

The implied remainder of the title of this paper is, of course, "the more they stay the same": "The more things change, the more they stay the same." In 1974 the writer Frank Chin and his fellow editors of Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers excoriated what they identified as the myth of Asian American "dual identity" by linking this concept and experience with the dominance of Anglo-assimilation in the United States.(1) Considered impossible to assimilate, Asians in America were described in various terms of inferiority having to do with being part-Asian and part-American. Now, a quarter of a century later, the protean concept of "dual identity" has returned in a new dispensation.

A sunny rendition of this construct of identity and culture occurs in Jade Snow Wong's well-known autobiography, Fifth Chinese Daughter (1945), where Jade Snow seems to discover what was already a cliche: she is a blend of the best of the East and of the West.(2) This fundamentally essentialist way of thinking about "the East" and "the West," however, occurs also in terms that cast Asian Americans into deep shadows: we are "marginal" persons, at home in neither East nor West. The dominant use of this cliche has been to alienate Asian Americans within the United States. We can never be wholly of the West; we are perpetual aliens indeed in the lands of our birth. Consequently, Japanese Americans, in one monumental instance during World War II, were to be shut into concentration camps because the presumed "Japanese" part of each of those individuals rendered them "enemy aliens."

For about a decade the critique of Asian American "dual identity" empowered Asian American studies with the contravening idea that it is the concept of "America" that needs to be changed so that it is understood that Asian Americans are singularly American. Then came a different change, the coming-of-age of children of the Asian diaspora who have grown up in America. When this historic generation entered into Asian American studies with their questions, challenges, writings, scholarship, and cultural productions, a shift began from the question, How do Asian Americans affect and reflect American history and culture?, to the question, How are Asian Americans related to and influenced by their Asian origins? This shift reinstates a concept of "dual identity": "I am both Korean and American," one might say under this new dispensation. But is this not the very construct that put Asian Americans in dire jeopardy and alienation in years past?

When it was published in 1974, the anthology, Aiiieeeee!, with its critical and provocative introductory essays constituting a manifesto for Asian American literature, was by no means the first work to attack the "dual identity" concept that is fundamental to an assimilationist project--assimilationist in that the concept assumes an "American" norm that Asian Americans can never achieve because we are both racially and culturally marked as being "different." The editors of the introduction not only claimed but also researched, selected, and published evidence of literary works that, according to the co-editor Frank Chin, "empirically" demonstrate the existence, already for at least eighty years, of an Asian American literary "tradition" of works that expose and resist racist mechanisms for dominating this group. The editors wrote fresh with their readings of the predecessors they had not known about until now. They proclaimed the history of "eighty years of our own voice" and asserted with a rich understatement, threatening to some readers, that "we are not new here." Indeed one of the bases for the attack against the concept of Asian American "dual identity" is the overturning of the notion, however effectively inscribed in a long history of anti-Asian American laws in the United States, that Asians come to America as sojourners, opportunists out to make a fast buck in order to return better off to their Asian homelands. …

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